You can fly every day to the east-coast cities from Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. Fares depend on the season, the highest being the two weeks either side of Christmas. Fares drop during the “shoulder” seasons – late February to May and mid-August to November – and you’ll get the best prices during low season, June to mid-August. Because of the distance from most popular departure points, flying on weekends does not alter the price.
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The easiest way to find a flight is on flight websites that collate airline and agent prices. Specialist flight agents can also help, and may offer special student and youth fares as well as organize travel insurance, rail passes, car rental and tours. If Australia is a stop on a longer journey, consider a Round-the-World (RTW) ticket. Australia is a fixture in RTW tickets offered by most agents.
Flights from the UK and Ireland
The journey to Sydney and other eastern cities from London takes a minimum of 21 hours including stops to refuel. Sydney and Melbourne are served by the greatest number of airlines, the former usually being slightly cheaper, though carriers like Qantas (qantas.com) charge similar prices to fly to any eastern city between Cairns and Adelaide; flights to Darwin and Perth are a little cheaper.
Notwithstanding the stop to refuel, often in Dubai (the new base for Qantas), Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, direct flights depart from London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports, although you can check luggage through if you fly with the same operator from regional UK airports to connect with international flights.
Except for New Zealanders, all tourists (including those on one-year working visas) are required to arrive with a return ticket. The cheapest costs around £700 during the low season (June to mid-August). The most expensive time to fly is around Christmas, when there are few tickets under £1000 return: book at least six months in advance to secure a cheap flight. Prices also blip upwards from mid-July to mid-August, coinciding with the European holiday period. The shoulder seasons of mid-August to November and mid-January to March can provide cheaper deals if you’re flexible.
An alternative to the long direct flight is a multi-stopover ticket, typically in Asia though often in the US or Middle East, which can cost the same or just a little more than the price of an ordinary return and breaks up the journey.
There are no direct flights to Australia from Ireland, so most routings involve a change in a European air hub – London, Paris or Frankfurt – to transfer to a long-haul airline. Return fares in low season are usually around the €800–900 mark, €1500 in high season.
Round-the-World (RTW) tickets will incorporate Australia within a package of global flights. The permutations are tantalizing: typically stopovers allow overland travel in Asia, the Pacific and North America, but you can pretty much devise your fantasy itinerary (say, to South America and the Pacific) and get it priced. A good agent such as STA Travel will piece together sector fares from various airlines; as an idea of prices, a simple London–Bangkok–Sydney–LA–London deal will come in at £750 minimum, while more complicated routings will be over £1400.
Flights from the US and Canada
From Los Angeles it’s possible to fly nonstop to Sydney in fourteen hours. Qantas, United (united.com) and Air Canada (aircanada.com) operate direct to the east coast of Australia. National Asian airlines usually stop in their capital city (Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong etc) – their fares on the Pacific route from the west coast of North America to the east coast of Australia are generally higher than their American and Australian competitors.
Many of the major airlines offer stopover deals in Pacific Rim destinations such as Tokyo, Honolulu or Kuala Lumpur or at South Pacific locations such as Fiji. Either there will be a flat surcharge on your ticket or they may offer you a higher-priced ticket allowing you to make as many stops as you like, within certain parameters, over a fixed period of time.
As an idea of prices, standard scheduled return fares for low/high seasons are circa US$1600/2000. The price of an open-jaw ticket (flying into one city and returning from another) will be the average of the return fares to the two cities. If you plan to fly around Australia, a Qantas AirPass can pay dividends, though not necessarily due to price slashing by budget domestic flights – do the sums first.
RTW or Circle Pacific tickets
If you don’t mind setting an itinerary in advance, the best deal will most likely be a Round-the-World (RTW) ticket that has stopoffs in Australia and New Zealand from North America, typically via Southeast Asia or Europe but also South America. As ever, prices vary hugely, depending on the agent. A sample RTW itinerary of Los Angeles–London–Dubai–Bangkok–Sydney–Auckland–Los Angeles costs around US$1600. Circle Pacific tickets are similar but restricted to the Pacific region, including North America and Asia. Check the websites of agents such as STA Travel for deals.
Flights from New Zealand and South Africa
New Zealand–Australia routes are busy and competition is fierce, resulting in an ever-changing range of deals; your best bet is to check the latest prices with flight websites that pool all airlines’ prices or consult a specialist travel agent. Budget airlines have slashed fares, with the likes of Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) offering daily deals. Ultimately, the price will depend on how much flexibility you want; many of the cheapest deals are hedged with restrictions – typically, a maximum stay of thirty days and a fourteen-day advance-purchase requirement. Air New Zealand (airnz.co.nz) and Virgin Australia fly from Auckland, Christchurch, Queenstown and Wellington. Flight times from Auckland to Sydney are three and a half hours.
Flying from South Africa, the journey time is around fourteen hours, travelling from Johannesburg to Sydney or around ten to Perth. The main carriers are Qantas and South African Airways (flysaa.com); expect to pay around ZAR20,000 return in peak season to Sydney.
Getting there from Southeast Asia
This is a time-honoured route to Australia for European backpackers thanks to its opportunities for travel adventures at budget-friendly prices. Travelling overland through Southeast Asia shouldn’t make too much of a difference to the price of your plane ticket, since many Asian airlines stop in their regional hub en route to Australia – Thai Airways in Bangkok (www.thaiairways.com), Singapore Airlines in Singapore (singaporeair.com), Malaysia Airways in Kuala Lumpur (malaysiaairlines.com), even Air China in Beijing (airchina.com.cn). If you want to continue overland between, say, Bangkok and Bali, from where it’s a short flight to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, consider a Round-the-World ticket with an overland component. Be aware, too, that if you buy a one-way ticket from Bali, you will still need a return ticket out of Australia to get through immigration.
Agents and tour operators
If time is short and you’re reasonably sure of your plans, prebook some accommodation and tours; see the following directory for a list of operators and Australian tour specialists.
Agents and operators
AAT Kings UK 020 8225 4220, Australia 1300 228 546, NZ 0800 500 146; aatkings.com. Long-established Australian coach-tour operator to destinations nationwide.
Abercrombie and Kent US 1800 554 7016, abercrombiekent.com. The high-end agent excels in tailored tours and interesting experiences themed by family fun, adventure, highlights or icons. Also has a couple of fixed-itinerary tours.
Explore UK 0845 013 1537, Republic of Ireland 01677 9479; explore.co.uk. Interesting Aussie adventures such as a two-week tour by tall ship as well as a Highlights of Australia tour.
North South Travel UK 01245 608 291, northsouthtravel.co.uk. Small, competitive agency with discounted fares. Profits support projects in the developing world, especially the promotion of sustainable tourism.
STA Travel UK 0871 230 0040, US 1800 781 4040, Australia 134 782, NZ 0800 474 400, South Africa 0861 781 781; statravel.co.uk. Worldwide specialists in independent travel; also student IDs, travel insurance, car rental, rail passes and more. Good discounts for students and under-26s.
Swain Australia Tours US 1800 227 9246, swainaustralia.com. Large range of customizable tours that cover all the major destinations and most regions, plus wine- or wildlife-themed itineraries.
Tasmanian Odyssey UK 01534 735 449, tasmanianodyssey.com. Well-chosen accommodation and tour experiences curated by Britain’s only specialist Tassie agency.
Trailfinders UK 0845 054 6060, Ireland 01677 7888, Australia 1300 780 212; trailfinders.com. One of the best-informed and most efficient agents for independent travellers.
Travel CUTS Canada 1800 667 2887, US 1800 592 2887; travelcuts.com. Canadian youth and student travel firm.
USIT Ireland t 01602 1906, Northern Ireland 028 9032 7111; usit.ie. Ireland’s main student and youth travel specialists also specializes in working holidays.
World Expeditions UK 020 8545 9030, US & Canada 1800 567 2216, Australia 1300 720 000, NZ 09 368 4161; worldexpeditions.co.uk. Australian-owned adventure company; small-group active wilderness holidays; cycling, canoeing, rafting, 4WD excursions, walking and camping.